These books are called chopdis and it is a tradition in the bania community across India to mark the start of the new year at Diwali by opening new account books. A puja is done over the books, to invoke Lakshmi’s blessings and as a sign of respect for the tools of their trade. And even though few people actually use the books, a few symbolic entries will be made.
Chopdi pujan used to be a very big deal, with business families going formally on Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali to pick up books from the sellers at pre-fixed auspicious times. As recently as 2001, Namita Devidayal, writing in the Times of India, described the ritual of going to Phulchand & D Sethia, one of the largest makers of chopdis, to get the chopdis and also the bamboo kalam used for the first entry, which had to be handed over by a girl “to symbolise Lakshmi”.
But after that computers started coming into offices in a big way and were duly assimilated into the puja, with vermillion marks placed over their screens.
Chopdis stopped being used for actual accounting and some of the spirit went out of the ceremony. Arvindbhai, who sells chopdis from his shop, Arvind Book Depot, a few metres from Mumbadevi Temple, says there are people who still keep parallel accounts on paper — “they don’t trust the new system” — but there can’t be many.
Sapan Faria, who runs Oswal Book Manufacturing Depot, one of the few big shops still left (Phulchand closed a few years ago) admits that most people just make token entries: “They do it just for the puja.” Yet he says that business is on the upswing again, after reaching a low point about four years ago. “People now want to do all rituals again,” he says. In season he might sell 75,000-80,000 chopdis, made at his three factories in Mumbai and dispatched across the country, from Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan.
Outside Mumbai, the traditions may be followed with even more rigour. Sailen Avalani, a businessman in Kolkata, notes disapprovingly: “In Mumbai, people go on holiday during Diwali. Here in Kolkata we stay open for business.”
It is the bania spirit, work before play, and he says they are also scrupulous about every detail surrounding chopdi pujan. “We go to the shop at prescribed time. We take red cloth to wrap the books in. And after we collect the books we walk straight without looking back, because we have to focus on the new way ahead.”
Rituals remain, or are reinvented. The chopdis Faria sells are bound books, with the required red covers, an almanac at the start and printed out for Vikram Samvat year 2071 which runs from October 24, 2014 (Friday), to November 11, 2015 (Wednesday), the date for Lakshmi Puja next year. But in the past they were, as described in a Times of India report of October 2, 1903, “made up of Ahmedabad paper of a peculiar make, which are so stitched or strung together that they can be re-opened and, after pages have been added or abstracted as the case may be, restrung with the greatest ease”.
This description was given by the Chief Justice of the Presidency Court of Small Causes, Rustomji Merwanji Patel, and he was not being complimentary. In his opinion, these were “a relic of antediluvian account-keeping”, and firms should move towards modern British-bound books. It seems to be the way pages could be added or removed from the middle of the old registers that he found objectionable, possibly because it made them more open to fraud.